What is Terrorism?
How can we define such broad terms, including: war, civil war, interstate conflict, low intensity conflict?
Terrorism is likely one of the most difficult definitions in international affairs. Each case is unique and perhaps Potter Stewerts outlook of “I know it when I see it” is best for this word. Originally I defined the term as: politically or ideologically motivated violence or threat of violence largely against the civilian population. As I read more definitions, the term became more difficult to understand. For example, I always assumed terrorists to be somewhat of an external rather than internal force. I never considered the actual government to be an entity that could commit terrorism. Nonetheless, various research has changed my opinion. Government sponsored terrorism has occurred throughout Africa specifically in Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Angola. Asia has also been a victim of government sponsored terrorism such as the Pol Pot era in Cambodia and possibly the junta in Myanmar.
Because of cases such as the aforementioned, I would dispute the use of civilian in the original definition of terrorism. In these previously mentioned cases the targets largely are civilians, but the perpetrators generally considered their targets to be ‘political opposition’ or a threat to national security. Hence, a legitimate question would be whether or not political opposition is entirely considered civilian. Although they are not presently holding an office, there is a degree of separation between them and ordinary civilians. If the government is targeting them, they do not see it as attacking a civilian but as attacking a threat thus protecting their own people from the ‘deemed’ risk. Conversely, I would also consider certain acts of violence against the military/government as terrorism. If a war is not declared, aren’t non-civilians just as innocent? Most of the buildings inhabitants during the 9/11 Pentagon attack were military officials, yet it was considered an act of terrorism. However, nearly all definitions of terrorism include the word ‘civilian’. Furthermore, the Tamil Tigers generally target military/government sites and not ordinary civilians, yet their acts are classified as terrorism. Finally, even though it was a declared time of war elsewhere in the world, the Pearl Harbor attacks of 1941 were generally considered terrorism despite the fact the target was a military base. All of these instances only go to show the degree of difficulty in defining this term especially the usage of the term civilian.
The term war is often used liberally and in my view incorrectly, originally I defined it as: a large scale conflict between two entities. In using the term entity I literally mean state or organization. Historical wars particularly in the last half-century have been more than just us versus them bombing campaigns. It seems that American presidents find it within reason to declare war upon tactics and social ailments. Some popular “wars” include the most recent declaration of War against terrorism by President Bush, in 1971 the particularly ambitious Nixon declared a war against cancer and drugs while President Johnson declared a war on poverty. Although it is within medical reason to defeat cancer, in war there generally is an outcome of win or lose. Hence, how can one ever defeat a tactic, or expect crime, drug use or poverty to be non-existent?
Another incorrect word usage in my original definition of war is the use of the term two. War more often than not involves numerous parties; it is never as simple as two. For example the large scale wars of the 20th century involved numerous countries. Even in conflicts such as the Vietnam War there were more players than just the U.S and the North Vietnamese. Nearly eight additional states had involvement including: China, Australia and The Soviet Union to name a few.
In the terms interstate war and civil war I believe there is often a difficulty in determination. I originally defined interstate war as: a war that crosses the boundaries of two states; and civil war as an armed conflict within a single country between people of varying views, backgrounds or regions.
The war in Bosnia was considered a civil war but many political scientists interpret it as an interstate war since the Bosnian Serb forces received arms and direction mainly from Belgrade. Violence in the Congo post-Mobutu is widely considered a civil war despite the fact that the fighters had ties to neighboring states. Finally the Iraq war is a current conflict up for analysis. Oftentimes it is called a civil war because of the internal conflicts between the three sectarian groups: Shiites, Sunni’s and Kurds. However, there are more groups outside of Iraq involved which could lessen the likelihood of civil war. Not only is the “coalition of the willing” present but Iran and Syria also have a presence (although more covert). Therefore, due to such wide scale involvement I believe it would qualify as more of an interstate war than civil war.
Finally, I originally defined low intensity warfare as: A conflict that is not a full scale war and not implementing full military man or weapon power. I do not necessarily see a problem with the definition but instead have a problem with the terminology. If a war is defined as a large scale conflict, it seems contradictory to call it low intensity. How can something as intense as a war be low intensity? Also, I think that it may be difficult to define what is considered “low intensity”. Just because there is an absence of weaponry and military, it is not necessarily related to low intensity. For example, the U.S. and Soviet Union had a cold war for nearly half a century. In a sense weapons were involved, but not against each other. Both countries were having an arms race and the military was constantly on high alert. There was never a bombing campaign or invasion (unless Bay of Pigs counts), yet I believe tensions in this ‘war’ were high until 1989. The term ‘cold’ literally refers to a war that never turned ‘hot’ (as in high tensions) nonetheless I think that a conflict that lasts for sixty years could definitely be considered intense.
The media easily throws around terms such as terrorism, war or civil war, but so few viewers/readers actually comprehend what these words entail. Therefore, as always, it is important to understand the terms that we use and use them properly.
 Potter Stewert is a former Supreme Court justice who when asked about hard-core pornography stated that “I know it when I see it”.
 Fearon, James. “Is the Conflict in Iraq a Civil War or Not?” Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. April 9, 2006.